Burning Stardust

When Suki climbed into Lewis’s truck, she changed his plans for their first date. “I want to see that plane you showed me the other day,” she said.

“It’s usually out at the other airport,” he said.

“Okay, let’s go.”

He drove north on Highway 2 out of Kalispell, puzzled and a little disappointed, heading towards Glacier Park International Airport.

In his rearview mirror he could see the laser light show over the Kalispell City Airport in his rearview mirror. That was where he had planned to take her. The smaller city airport hosted shows like that night’s Fourth of July celebration, as well as Memorial Day and Labor Day because it was easier for people, meaning tourists, to see and attend. Kalispell was working harder to attract tourists since Glacier National Park’s glaciers melted. The city’s dark skies laws meant the nights above the Flathead Valley provided a purer matte canvas for laser and drone shows set to AI-improvised music. The waxing moon was still low in the east right now, which made an especially dark sky for the show.

Instead, Lewis and Suki cruised through the Rose Crossing intersection, with “Coming Soon” development signs posted on the right side of the road. Someone had spray painted a giant black X on one of the signs. 

On the truck’s bench seat between them lay Suki’s backpack. It wasn’t the hiking kind, or one of those vintage leather purse-looking ones with shoulder straps. Those might have made sense to Lewis for her to bring on a date. This was a student bag, the kind with drawstrings that formed the shoulder straps when pulled closed. The University of Montana seal was printed on one side, with “Suki” handwritten inside the university’s seal. She wore very casual clothes for a date, too, more casual than he expected. He could tell she could dress up if she wanted and be a stunner, better than most. She was active and hiked and didn’t eat junk.

He brought a backpack too, with padded shoulder straps and a few things he packed for what he thought would be their evening at the Independence Day Air Show and Drone Festival.

Before they reached Glacier Park International, she said, “Pull over—let’s park here.”

For a moment he thought, hoped, that she wanted to make out in the dark next to the empty road. Instead, she grabbed her bag and jumped out of the truck.

“Where are we going?”

“Show me that plane,” she said, and closed the door.

He grabbed his backpack and followed her. They crossed the highway, two lanes at that point and still warm from the day’s sun. They picked up a little speed descending the short slope at the far edge of the road, jump a small ditch at the bottom, and faced the chain link perimeter fence.

“Shouldn’t we see if the gates are open?” Lewis asked.

Suki didn’t answer. She pulled a flashlight from her bag, switched it on, and used the weak beam to search inside the bag.

Lewis couldn’t believe he hadn’t packed a flashlight for an evening date outdoors. He needed to get better at this dating thing.

She pulled a small pair of wire cutters from her bag and held them up in the light. The tool wasn’t any bigger than a pair of pliers. “This is quicker.” She snipped the bottom off one link in the fence. Then, with the flashlight, she traced the snipped link up about a meter, and snipped it again. She threaded the section out of the fence, leaving a one-meter vertical seam.

She pulled back one edge of the seam and gestured to Lewis. “After you.”

They walked across the open field between highway and runway. Suki swept the flashlight side-to-side to help them avoid stepping in gopher holes. They didn’t say much as they walked, a spot of light zigzagging through the dark field. In the distance he could hear the occasional pop and boom of fireworks, illegal for nearly 50 years now but still sold on the Flathead Indian reservation just south of town.

He felt sure Glacier International had some sort of security besides the fence. They couldn’t be international without it. Probably sensors and cameras clustered around the hangars and buildings, tied to some online AI monitor. Good thing the airport didn’t seem to have drones patrolling the fields areas, at least that he could see.

They transitioned from lumpy, scratchy field to the flat, warm runway. Suki turned off her flashlight. They followed the pavement north, continuing with Kalispell at their back. The first buildings they found were the smaller hangars for private planes and charter services, standing between the dark of the field and the bigger passenger terminals at the midpoint of the runways.

Lewis stopped Suki for a moment and scanned the four rows of planes parked in front of the hangar closest to the field. With so many planes, he guessed a lot of the digerati from the Van-SanFran corridor had flown in for the holiday weekend. There’d be a mix of autonomous and manual models here, biofuel and electric and hybrid, depending on how the rich liked their toys.

“There,” Lewis whispered and pointed to the row of planes closest to the field. The one Suki wanted sat at the far end of the row nearest the edge of the parking area. They walked down the row. Lewis wanted to peek and gawk at each plane, but Suki made a straight line to the one he’d pointed out to her a few days ago. 

“The propeller is in the back?” Suki said. “That’s weird.” 

“It’s a pusher prop,” Lewis whispered. “That’s what Grandpa calls it.”

Suki stood near the nose of the craft and traced her finger over the script stenciling of the plane’s name, Stardust. She could feel the bumps of glitter in the paint of the lettering. “I thought it would be shiny up close.”

Lewis stood farther back along the craft. Up close this thing was sleeker, more high-tech, more beautiful than he imagined. He tapped its dark blue body with an index finger. “It’s alloy. Strong. Light. Expensive, too.” He tapped a window. “Polycarb.” He touched two small hatch covers, one to each side of him. Both were about the size of a slice of bread. Both were locked. “It’s a hybrid: plug-in and biofuel.”

Last week Lewis and Suki were hanging out on her break from the touristy retail store across the street from the machine shop where he worked for his grandfather. He’d always worked summers and vacations in the shop, especially now that he was dropping out of the university. He noticed her a couple weeks earlier, leaning against the brick wall around the corner from the shop’s front door. She looked like the girls at college, the ones he might not see again. Maybe she was a girl from college. He decided he better find out. And she was, except she said she was dropping out, too. 

While they talked, a sleek private plane, midnight blue with big windows, flew over the two of them. Lewis told Suki about the guy who owned the plane, that he used to be a rocket designer for Taylor Aerospace and even trained to go to space but now flew tourists and hunters and miners and developers and rich people around Flathead and Glacier. Lewis was trying to impress her by sounding smart and connected. He said the pilot came in the shop occasionally for specialty parts that he couldn’t find online and didn’t have the equipment to machine or print himself, even though he clearly knew how. Grandpa said he’d bring in holographic blueprints of what he needed, very clean and precise work.

As Lewis talked, Suki shaded her eyes with her hands and watched the plane bank west, maybe heading towards the closest major airport in Spokane. “I wish developers and miners and loggers would stay away from here,” she said. “I wish half the world was left wild. Maybe more.” After the plane disappeared in the distance, she lowered her hands and turned to Lewis and smiled.

Lewis joined Suki at the back of the plane. “So why are we here, and where did you learn that fence trick?” he asked. He smiled nervously. “Are we going for a joyride? You’re secretly a pilot?”

Suki pulled a small crowbar, maybe as long as her forearm, from her bag. Lewis’s grandfather would call it a cat’s paw. “Remember when you told me about what this guy does, flying hunters and developers and miners around? We’re making sure that doesn’t happen anymore.”

“Why?” Lewis asked.

Suki stooped under one of Stardust’s wings, kneeled next to a tire, and held the cat’s paw by the straight end. She swung the curved and notched end into the tire two, three, four times and more until it burst with a loud POP

She crawled out from under the wing and stood up. “If we make it harder for them to hunt and build and pave and log and mine, they’ll stop.” She handed him the cat’s paw. “Here—your turn.” 

Lewis took the tool. It felt surprisingly dense for its size. It still held warmth from Suki’s grip. Stardust was a beautiful plane. Suki was a beautiful girl. He didn’t know where any of this was headed.

He stepped to the nose of the plane, bent over, and drove the tool into the front tire. It burst on the first swing.

“Lucky hit,” Suki said.

Lewis grinned for a moment. “Flat tires won’t stop a plane for long.”

Suki took back the tool and started wailing on the windows. The cat’s paw made a dull thud, quieter than he expected, not a ringing sound like hitting glass. Quiet is good when you’re vandalizing, he thought.

Nothing broke, nothing cracked. Suki carved a few scratches for her efforts. She dropped the tool—it clanged on the tarmac—then looked around and picked up a rock from the edge of the field. “Anything is a weapon if you use it the right way.”

“Is that some slogan?” Lewis asked.

“Not sure where I heard that,” she said. “Maybe my parents, but what would they know?”

She threw the rock straight and strong, like she had played a lot of ball, hardball not softball. Lewis had never played. The rock thumped against a passenger door and dropped to the ground.

“I told you about making half the earth wild again. Remember? There’s this group, a cause, kind of. They don’t have a name, but people call them Halfers. Instead of just talking about making half the world wild, they’re doing it. That’s what we’re doing.”

She picked up another rock and pitched it straight at a window. Thump.

Suki let out a growl. “Don’t you see?” She picked up the cat’s paw and started pounding on the plane again. “The glaciers and the fires and the floods and the droughts,” she said, each thud punctuating her list. “Something needs to happen. People talk about it all the time, but they don’t do anything.”

She looked at Lewis. “I can’t believe you didn’t bring anything.”

He pushed his eyebrows together. “You didn’t tell me we were doing crime. I thought this was a date.”

Even across the dark of night, she looked him in the eye. “If you knew, would you have come?”

He looked back. “Yes.”

Suki gestured at his backpack. “So, what did you bring?”

He felt his cheeks flush. He opened his bag. “I thought we were going to the show.” He pulled out a sweatshirt. “In case you got cold.” A chocolate bar. “In case you got hungry.” And two illegal fireworks—sparklers. “For us to share.”

“You naughty boy.”

“The reservation still sells them.” He felt his cheeks flush again. “I forgot a lighter. I thought about that right when we turned north on Two.” He looked at her. “We can come back another night, bring some tools from the shop, do this right.”

“No. Nobody’s around and the moon’s still low. It’s got to be tonight.”

Lewis’s brain kicked into intuition mode, something all the AIs and autonomous systems still couldn’t replicate or replace. He spent enough time around his grandfather in the machine shop to learn how to think through a problem. Stardust wouldn’t break. Maybe it would burn. The magnesium on a sparkler would burn longer and hotter than a match, if he could get it started. Fire needs fuel plus oxygen plus spark. The sparkler was fuel and the night air gave oxygen.

A solution flashed in his head.

He took the cat’s paw from Suki. “Go find some long grass that hasn’t totally dried out. The longer the better. And a couple rocks, kind of long and flat, about the same size.”

Suki took out her flashlight again and pointed it into the field.

“Maybe up against the back of the hangar,” Lewis suggested.

She turned to her left and headed towards the building.

Lewis pried open the door to the biofuel tank, which was on the pilot’s side of the plane just forward of the pusher prop. Inside the door, he found just a screw cap sealing the neck of the tank. That was easy.

Next, he walked around the propeller to the other side of the plane to force open the engine compartment. He could see silver circles of both mechanical and encryption locks on the door to the engine compartment. Lewis slipped the tip of the cat’s paw’s curved end into the seam below the mechanical lock. Once the tool was firmly inserted, he started rocking forward and back, towards the plane and then away, slowly working on fatiguing whatever small metal parts made up the mechanical lock.

Suki returned just as his rocking was gaining momentum and Lewis was starting to breathe a little heavier than normal. “Should I leave you two alone?” she asked.

“Ha . . . very . . . funny,” Lewis huffed and with a loud POP the mechanical lock gave way.

“Yay!” Suki said.

Lewis told her, “Not so fast.” He used the straight end of the cat’s paw to pry open the still-locked hatch as much as possible. “Hurry, wedge your flashlight in there.”

“It won’t fit.”

Lewis put all his weight against the lever. “There, go, now.”

“Still won’t fit.”

Lewis grunted. “Okay, anything.”

Suki took her sweatshirt out of her backpack, waded it up, and stuffed it into the space Lewis was holding open.

He slowly shifted his weight off the lever. The compartment door pressed down on the ball of cloth but stayed open about five centimeters. “Good, that’ll do.” 

He looked at Suki. “There’s still the encryption lock, and it’s probably got some sort of security uplink. Once we break that, we won’t have a lot of time. Show me what you got.”

Suki laid her two rocks and handful of grass stems on the pavement.

“Good work. Shine your light here.”

Lewis used the broadest grass stem she brought to lash one of the rocks to the handle of the sparkler. When he was done, he held the sparkler by its tip and jiggled it up and down, to make sure the rock wouldn’t drop off.

“What are you doing?”

“You’ll see.”

Next, he picked the longest, thinnest piece of grass she brought. He tied one end of the grass around the flammable shaft of the sparkler, about two-thirds down from the tip. At the other end of the grass stem he tied the second rock.

“Bring your light.”

He walked back around to the fuel tank. He slid the weighted sparkler a little way into the neck of the tank and then held it with just the long piece of grass. He tugged on the long grass to test the pull of the weight. Then he let the rock on the long piece of grass just hang, without moving his hands more than a centimeter from the stem. The two rocks acted as counterweights and kept the sparkler in place in the neck of the tank.

He took the sparkler and rock assembly back out. He walked back around the propeller again to the engine compartment. Suki followed him with the light.

He laid the sparkler assembly on the ground under the plane. “Don’t step on that,” he told Suki. “Here, shine the light up here.”

She pointed the light at the open crack of the engine cover.

Lewis held the cat’s paw with two hands, one around the curl and one on the straight, and drove the tip of the metal rod into the slender opening of the engine hatch again and again, ramming the square casing of the encryption lock. “Dammit, break.” He was huffing and grunting until the mounting screws for the lock gave way. The compartment hatch rose open with the lock mechanism still attached.

“We need to hurry.”

Lewis traced circuits until he found what he thought was the ignition circuit. That would probably have power. He wrapped the cat’s paw in Suki’s sweatshirt as insulation and used the bar to pry up and break the wire.

“Hand me the flashlight,” he said. Lewis rested it so it shone mostly on the broken wire. “Okay, grab the sparkler. Careful.”

Suki picked up the sparkler while supporting the rocks and grass stems.

He guided her hands closer to the engine. “I need you to hold the sparkler, so it pins down one end of the wire, like this. When I touch the other wire to the sparkler, it should light. I’ll get a little shock, but don’t let that startle you. Got it?”


Suki leaned in and held the sparkler tip in the circle of light, pressing down on one end of the broken wire. Lewis picked up the loose end of wire and touched it to the sparkler.

Jesus H. Mother—” Lewis swore and jerked his hand back.

The magnesium in the sparkler flashed to life with a burst of white light.

 “It worked! Are you okay?”

“Here, give it to me.”

She handed the delicate burning arrangement to him. Lewis and Suki walked around the propeller to the fuel tank. He slid the weighted end of the sparkler into the neck of the tank. Bits of hot sparkler dropped onto his wrist, burning his skin. Now that the sparkler was lit, he realized it might burn the grass stem earlier than he thought, before it reached the knot on the sparkler, because the grass was laying alongside the burning shaft in the neck of the fuel tank. He let the counterweight rock dangle, slowly withdrawing his hands until he was sure it would stay in place.

“Okay, go! Quick!” Lewis started running away from the hangar and towards the runway.

Suki ran around to the other side of Stardust.

“Where are you going?”

“Our stuff!”

Suki scooped up her sweatshirt and their two backpacks, took her flashlight from the engine compartment, and ran to catch up with Lewis.

They were three planes away from Stardust. Lewis turned and took shelter behind the fuselage of a white six-seater with red pinstripes. Suki followed him. From their hideout they could see the sparkler’s brightness reflected on Stardust’s dark alloy skin.

“So, the sparkler burns through the grass, the one rock falls and the sparkler drops into the tank?” she asked.

“That’s the plan.”

 “Genius.” She kissed him—their first kiss.

They saw the plane swallow the sparkler’s white brightness and before the sound of a stone hitting pavement reached them, the flash of the fuel explosion robbed them of their night vision.

A loud boom followed and then Stardust itself became a giant sparkler as the lithium in the plane’s battery caught fire, shooting white jets of flame. It was their own fireworks show, like video of the old July 4th shows, before droughts and fire danger and razed neighborhoods drove a nationwide ban on fireworks and drone shows filled the skies with sterile, programmed cartoons of patriotism and nostalgia.

The burning lithium jets looked like they might catch other planes on fire.

“We gotta run,” Lewis said. He stepped in the field, heading for the truck.

“Wait,” Suki said.

She scurried up to the nose of Stardust, as close as she could get. From her backpack she pulled a can of fluorescent green spray paint. On the ground next to the popped front tire, she painted a green circle the diameter of a ponderosa pine trunk. With a flick of her wrist, she divided the circle in two with paint. Then she filled in one half of the circle with green.

Suki tossed the paint can onto the flames. Lewis heard a ping as it exploded.

They ran. Suki started off immediately over the field. Lewis called her onto the tarmac, so they could go faster on the flats, before cutting straight across the field of gopher holes. No one seemed to be chasing them, no security drones that they could see or hear.

 This time, they forgot to use the flashlight. Lewis caught the toe of his shoe in a gopher hole and landed hard in his chest. He was up on his hands and knees, wheezing before Suki caught up with him.

She put her arms around his chest and helped him stand. “Are you alright?”

“Just the . . . wind . . . knocked out . . . of me.”

She helped him start to walk again, then trot, then run the last few meters until they reached the fence.

“Where’s our hole?” he said.

Suki swept the flashlight beam across the fence. Because their opening was just a slit, it blended into the rest of the fence.

Lewis grabbed the chain link and started shaking it. “Not here,” he said. He moved to his right, past one pole, and shook the fence again. “Nope.”

Suki moved one pole to the left and rattled the fence. “Not here.”

Lewis moved another pole to the right. “Nothing.”

“It’s here!” Suki said.

Lewis ran to her and ducked through the opening. They jumped the ditch, lumbered up the short steep slope to the road, and crossed to the truck. 

“Holy . . . Christ,” Lewis huffed, “I didn’t . . . think it . . . would work.”

“Can you drive?” Suki asked.

Lewis nodded.

“Get in quick. Let’s go. Kill the lights.”

Lewis pulled back onto Highway 2, driving dark and heading north. They passed the silent main gates to Glacier Park International.

“Where to?” he asked.

“Turn right at Jellison.”

At the north end of the airport, he turned right at Jellison Road. When he left the highway, he switched the headlights on again. Deer might be out, and he didn’t want to hit one. The backroads ran due south, almost paralleling Highway 2.

She guided him from Jellison to Helena Flats to Bayou Road, until they came to a park on the banks of the Flathead River. As the raven flies, they were a short way east from the scene of their crime. If it wasn’t for the summer’s perpetual tinge of wildfire smoke in the air, they might have been able to smell the burning plane on the night breeze.

Lewis backed the truck down to the river’s edge. The Flathead in summer was low, barely a whisper with no glacial melt and the feds trying to keep enough water in Hungry Horse Reservoir just east of them.

He flipped down the tailgate and spread out his sweatshirt on the cool metal for them to sit on. He took out his chocolate bar.

She pulled out her sweatshirt and put it on. From her pack she took a bioplastic tub of huckleberries and a bottle of water still warm from the day. They split the berries and chocolate between them and passed the water back and forth.

“Have you done anything like this before?” he asked.

“Little stuff,” Suki said. “Pulling up survey stakes, slashing tractor tires. Nothing like tonight.” She tossed a huckleberry in the air and caught it in her mouth. “That was amazing.”

“If we make half the Earth wild, then what about the people who’d have to move or lose their jobs?”

“Screw the other half,” Suki said. “People are already losing their homes and jobs and lives. I mean, my God, Whitefish burned to the ground not that long ago. Shouldn’t all that pain at least be for a good cause?”

“So why now?” 

“Nobody is doing anything big enough, fast enough. Someone needs to reverse course. My parents named me Sequoia for god’s sakes, like that would help.”

She stopped for a moment. “Please, don’t tell anyone. I hate that name.”

Lewis laughed. “I won’t.”

“You have to promise.”

“I, Lewis Whitmore, promise to never reveal Suki’s true name.”

“Good. I mean, it’s rare just to see a hummingbird anymore.” Suki paused again. “My cousins died in the Whitefish fire.”

“Really? I’m sorry.”

“Both of them, sleeping over at a friend’s house. Birthday party.”

“That’s awful.”

“My aunt and uncle are still torn up. She started drinking, hard. They’re probably getting a divorce.”

“Geez, Suki. That’s rough.”

After a moment, Lewis asked, “Do you know any real Halfers?”

“No. My folks dragged me to a Half-Earth meeting once. That’s an actual group, pushing for policies and voting and fundraising and all that crap. I like that Halfers don’t have meetings. ‘If you can’t build, destroy.’ That’s what I’ve heard.”

She took a long drink from the water bottle. “You’re full of questions. What about you? What have you done?”

Lewis shook his head. “I boosted some low-tech stuff, tools and supplies I wanted back in junior high. But nothing real. Nothing with an agenda.”

“So why did you do this tonight, with me?”

“To be with you.”

“You can’t be that desperate to get some.”

Lewis laughed. “Not just that. I feel like I’m missing out. Intensity, excitement, a cause. It’s hard to feel sometimes.”

He slipped his hand around hers. “Grandpa taught me all the old-fashioned stuff like hunting and fishing and working on antique fuel motors. That didn’t win me friends with the screenheads at school, but I love it. Now Hungry Horse is barely half full, and the fish are mostly gone. It’s harder and harder to find snow to drive on in the winter. We have to haul gear nearly to Banff anymore. That’s tough with Grandpa getting older and biofuel going up.”

He stopped, shrugged his shoulders. “Things aren’t heading in the right direction. Maybe it’s time for me to get passionate about the things I want to keep.” 

Lewis let go of Suki’s hand and took the second sparkler out of his backpack. “I still don’t have a way to light this.” He flicked his wrist and sent the metal stick twirling through the night and into the river.

“Why’d you do that?” Suki asked.

“Disposing of possibly incriminating evidence,” Lewis said in a lawyerly tone.

“Oh, really.”

“Think we can still make the drone show?” he asked. “It could be a decent alibi.”

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